Most students at Columbia do not have first hand knowledge of war. Military violence has been a vicarious experience, channeled into our minds through television, film, and print.
The more sensitive among us struggle to extrapolate experiences of war from our everyday experience, discussing the latest mortality statistics from Guatemala, sensitizing ourselves to our parents’ wartime memories, or incorporating into our framework of reality as depicted by a Mailer or a Coppola. But the taste of war—the sounds, the chill, the dead bodies—are remote and far removed. We know that wars have occurred, will occur, are occurring, but bringing such experience down into our hearts, and taking continual, tangible steps to prevent war, becomes a difficult task.
—“Breaking the War Mentality”, Barack Obama, 1983.
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said,
My Father, Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
This seems to be the Twitter account of James Dresnok, the last survivor among six US soldiers who defected to North Korea following the Korean War. Dresnok is the subject of Crossing the Line by Daniel Gordon, who has made a career out of DPRK documentaries. It’s an interesting companion to his earlier film A State of Mind, which followed two Pyongyang gymnasts preparing for the Mass Games. Both are rare observations of the daily lives of privileged, useful people in a totalitarian state. Both are marred by narration and simplifications that turn away from complex, uncomfortable truths (but maybe this is a trade-off that must be made to make a movie about North Korea).
I am still not sure if Dresnok is tragic, pitiful, or just stupid. He fled the strictures and discipline of the US Army for a nation where everything is controlled and everyone militarized. He seems happy to live out his days in a carefully constructed zoo, as long as the state meets his base needs for food, sex, liquor, and fame. In one scene, he describes his life in Pyongyang during the four year famine that began in 1994: ”I still remember the Arduous March. Because of the sanctions and blockation of the American government and the Japanese, at least thousands, I think, or hundreds of thousands of Korean people died from starvation.” In fact, it was between one and two million, maybe more. “My life has never changed since I’ve been in the DPRK,” he continues. “The Korean people starved to death, but I got my rice rations, 800 grams a day, every day the same. When I eat my rice, I think about the people who died, who starved to death, but yet they fed me.” It seems sincere. But yet he ate it, and still eats, unaware that suffering pervades so much more of his daily life.
His Twitter account is one of the strangest internet artifacts I’ve ever come across. Why did he send these messages? Is someone watching him, or are all tweets inane even when they are scarce and precious? What happened in the months-long silences between them? If the messages are carefully monitored, like everything in North Korea, how can it be that the first account he followed was a mediocre Kim Jong-il parody? Why is he following a gift shop in Peterborough, New Hampshire?
It is terrifying to think that North Korea might be a place so isolated and a state so totalizing that living within the truth is impossible. But at least it would be easy to forgive all the people who did evil and did not know. Dresnok owns an iPad, and with it the privilege of retweeting a bad joke from a CBS reporter. How can he not know—or not choose to know? And how then can we forgive him?
I cannot be the only one who finds cinemagraphs uncanny in the extreme. Look at those glasses of wine in perpetual wobble! Would you rather be doomed to butter bread for all eternity, or frozen in time forever, reaching for a canapé you will never eat?
Here is Nate Silver’s 538 forecast versus the Intrade closing price for an Obama victory since June of this year. Trading in the prediction markets has been relatively thin, and banking regulations made it difficult for US citizens to participate this year. The big divergence in the last few weeks is interesting, but I predict that neither prediction will be falsified tonight. Here is a bigger version.
I dug up the 538 data from this URL if you care to muck around with it yourself.
I drink to our ruined house,
to the dolor of my life,
to our loneliness together;
and to you I raise my glass,
to lying lips that have betrayed us,
to dead-cold pitiless eyes,
and to the harsh realities:
that the world is brutal and coarse,
that God in fact has not saved us.
—”The Last Toast,” Anna Akhmatova. Guaranteed hit at Thanksgiving.
I have been working up a sweat jaywalking for true justice, but a healthy philosophical workout should exercise your whole body of beliefs. As a fallibilist, I suspect that someday I’ll have to abandon a deeply held belief in the name of truth and rationality. I want to be ready for this, too. So here is a complementary exercise. Every day or so, when you feel sure of some trivial opinion, change your mind for a moment. Ask yourself: What if you’re wrong? What is the next best belief? How do you know? When the big day comes, you’ll be ready. (But I could be wrong).
You are in a booth with two levers. Pulling lever 1 will increase the probability P of an apocalyptic war by some amount O. Pulling lever 2 will increase P by some amount R. Pulling either lever will instantly kill an innocent child. You may refuse to pull either lever, but doing so will increase P by some amount N and instantly kill an innocent child.
If R > O, but N is unknown, which lever do you pull? For what values of these probabilities would you pull each lever? What if N is a function of O, R, and the location of the booth? What if R, O, and N are all very small?
I’m glad I can reason about problems like this from the comfort of my armchair. I hesitate to think about the gruesome moral compromises I might be forced to make if they were real.
In the Tribal Areas
“It’s a singular apparatus,” the officer said to the traveler, running his somewhat admiring eyes over the apparatus, with which he was after all familiar. The traveler seemed to have accepted the invitation purely out of courtesy: the commander had asked him to attend the execution of a militant, who had been condemned to death. There probably wasn’t all that much interest in this execution even within the tribal areas. At least, here in this deep, sandy valley, which was closed in by barren slopes on all sides, the only person present, aside from the officer and the traveler, was a soldier seated at a carrel set deep in the ground.
The traveler had little interest in the apparatus and was almost visibly unconcerned as he walked back and forth behind the carrel, while the officer took care of the final adjustments, crawling underneath the apparatus, or scaling a ladder to examine the upper parts. These were chores that could have actually been left to a mechanic; but the officer performed them with great zeal either because he was a strong supporter of this apparatus or because there were other reasons why the job could not have been entrusted to anyone else.
“It’s all set!” he finally called and climbed down the ladder. He was extremely worn out and breathed with his mouth wide open.
“These uniforms must be far too heavy for summer,” the traveler said instead of inquiring about the apparatus, as the officer had expected.
“True enough,” said the officer, washing his greasy, oily hands in a pail of water that stood ready, “but they represent our homeland, and we do not want to lose our homeland.
“But now look at this apparatus,” he promptly added, drying his hands with a towel while simultaneously motioning toward the apparatus. “Up to this point, it requires manual labor, but from now on, the apparatus works automatically.”